Syria – Is It On the Threshold Of a Civil War?

07 Aug


The Assad regime’s brutal assault on the town of Hama should serve to dispel any notion that the struggle in Syria is nearing its end, or that the Assad regime has accepted its fate.

The general direction of the revolts in the Arab world now suggests that the region’s worst dictators have an even chance of survival, on condition that they have no qualms about going to war against their own people.

Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to have internalized the lesson.

Military theorists today are divided regarding the role of the main battle tank in the battlefield of the future. Assad over the past 48 hours has demonstrated that whatever the outcome of this debate, the role of the tank as an instrument of war against civilians remains highly relevant in the Middle East.

The Syrian President’s elite 4th Armored Division would be unlikely to last long against the IDF’s 7th Brigade on the Golan Heights.

Against the civilian protesters of Hama, however, it has proven a highly effective instrument. The death toll from Assad’s reducing of Hama now stands at around 140. There are hundreds more wounded.

Assad’s military machine is reported now to be descending on Deir a-Zour. The neighborhood of Al-Joura in the town is being shelled, according to opposition sources. There are persistent reports of large-scale desertions from the army in the Deir a-Zour area.

Protests in support of Hama have begun in Deraa, the birthplace of the revolt against the Assad regime.

Renewed protests in the environs of Damascus are also taking place. The response of the West to the events in Hama has been an additional notching- up of the rhetoric.

US President Obama is now “horrified” by events in Syria.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, meanwhile, professed himself “appalled” by the latest reports. Both the German and Italian governments have called for an urgent discussion of the issue at the UN Security Council.

Assad is unlikely to be unduly alarmed at this prospect. The international community remains divided on Syria. Russia, a long-term close ally of the Assads, has been critical of regime tactics but would be likely to veto any attempt at an effective response via the UN. The West itself is also lukewarm.

There is no enthusiasm among any Western public for further embroiling in Middle East affairs. Hague has explicitly ruled out military action.

The small demonstrations outside Syrian embassies in Europe are attended by Syrian expatriates alone. Those who were predicting a wave of democratization in the region six months ago now look hopelessly naïve. As a consequence, the US and European countries have yet to even call for the resignation of Assad. And the sanctions in place against him are far less than would be required to really force a change of policy.

And yet, with all this, the regime has found it impossible to quell the revolt. Since mid-April, it has been in a state of more or less open war against its own people. The latest increase in repression was designed to re-assert control over areas of particular rebel support before the onset of Ramadan. Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, has been the main focus of protests.

The regime doubtlessly calculated, correctly, that with the onset of Ramadan, the volatile crowds that have manned the demonstrations would be on the streets on a daily basis. It was therefore imperative to re-assert control in rebel areas.

In Hama, the Syrian military pursued this mission with extreme vigor. But if the regime hoped that this would finally allow them to begin to contain the unrest, it was wrong.

The crucial question now, is where all this is heading. The irresistible force of the uprising has met with the immovable object of the Assad regime. What is the prognosis? The answer appears to be an intensification of the efforts of both sides. The Assad regime’s efforts to crush the regime are taking on a more nakedly sectarian hue.

This is the Alawi ruling elite in Syria fighting for its survival.

Alawi military units and Alawi militias (the Shabiha) are the instruments remaining to the Assads. Sectarian revenge killings of Shabiha men by Sunni Syrians in Homs earlier this month may presage the opening of a new, uglier chapter.

The key issue remains whether the security forces will stay united. There are persistent, hard to verify reports of desertions in considerable numbers. An army colonel, Riad al-Asaad, has emerged in the last days, claiming to be the leader of a “Syrian Free Army,” on the country’s border with Turkey. It will soon become clear if there is anything to this claim.

But with neither side willing to back down, increased violence may well be the only logical direction for events to take. Assad has gathered the core of his Alawi regime around him, for a fight to the end. There are increasing numbers among the rebels, especially after the latest events in Hama, who will be determined to meet him head-on. The result: Syria today stands on the threshold of a slide into sectarian civil war.

1 Comment

Posted by on August 7, 2011 in Uncategorized


One response to “Syria – Is It On the Threshold Of a Civil War?

  1. Horatiu 2010

    August 7, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    Syria: Tired slogans and a looming dawn

    The regime is exploiting the decades-old political discourse to explain its inhumane treatment of Syrians

    There is no linear narrative capable of explaining the multifarious happenings that have gripped Syrian society in recent months. On March 23, as many as 20 peaceful protesters were killed at the hands of Syrian security forces, and many more were wounded. Since then, the violence has escalated to such a level of brutality and savagery that can only be comparable to the regime’s infamous massacres in the city of Hama in 1982.

    Listening to Syrian presidential advisor, Dr. Buthaina Shaaban — one of the most eloquent politicians in the Arab world — one would get the impression that a self-assured reform campaign is indeed under way in Syria. Her words also suggest while some of the protesters’ demands are legitimate, the crisis has been largely manufactured abroad and is being implemented at home by armed gangs bent on wrecking havoc. The aim of the protests, as often suggested by officials, is only to undermine Syria’s leadership in the region and the Arab world at large.

    Indeed, Syria has championed, at least verbally, the cause of Arab resistance. It has hosted Palestinian resistance factions that refused to toe the US-Israeli line. Although these factions don’t use Damascus as a starting point for any form of violent resistance against Israel, they do enjoy a fairly free platform to communicate their ideas. Israel, which seeks to destroy all forms of Palestinian resistance, is infuriated by this freedom.

    Syria has also supported the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah, which succeeded in driving Israel out of Lebanon in 2000, and torpedoed Israel’s efforts at gaining political and military grounds in Lebanon in 2006.

    This narrative can also demonstrate the viability of its logic through palpable evidence of open or covert attempts at targeting Syria, undermining its leadership of the so-called rejectionist front. The front, which refused to cede to US-Israeli hegemony in the region, had already shrunk significantly following the invasion of Iraq, the surrender of Libya to Western diktats, and the sidelining of Sudan.

    More, the Israeli government had been genuinely frustrated when the US failed to target Syria during its regime change frenzy following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After all, Israel’s faithful neoconservative friends — Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser — had made “containing Syria” a paramount objective in their 1996 policy paper. Entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm”, the document was written to help Benjamin Netanyahu in his efforts to suppress his regional foes. It stated that, “given the nature of the regime in Damascus, it is both natural and moral that Israel abandon the slogan ‘comprehensive peace’ and move to contain Syria, drawing attention to its weapons of mass destruction program, and rejecting ‘land for peace’ deals on the Golan Heights”.

    Syria has also fallen in the range of US-Israeli fire on more than one occasion. The so-called Operation Orchard was an Israeli airstrike with a US green light. It targeted an alleged nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zor region in September 2007 and an American airborne assault against a Syrian village in October 2008, killing and wounding Syrian civilians.

    Although the official Syrian narrative claims that these events alone should justify the army’s harsh crackdown on pro-democracy protests, the rationale is challenged by a history of regime hypocrisy, doublespeak, brutality and real, albeit understated willingness to accommodate Western pressures and diktats.

    The Israel occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights in June 1967 didn’t simply affect regional power dynamics, it also ushered the rise of a new political mood in Damascus. It was Hafez Al-Assad, the father of the current president, Bashar, who took full advantage of the shifting mood by overthrowing President Nur Al-Din Al-Atasi. The new narrative was a triumphant one, not aimed merely at recapturing Syrian and other occupied Arab territories from Israel, but also positioning al-Assad’s Baath regime as the leader of the new Arab front. Although the 1973 war failed to liberate the Golan of its invaders, leading to the “disengagement agreement” with Israel in May 1974, the official language remained as fiery and revolutionary as ever. Oddly, for nearly four decades, Syria’s involvement in the conflict remained largely theoretical, and resistance persisted only via smaller Lebanese and Palestinian groups.

    It seemed that Syria wanted to be involved in the region only so much as to remain a visible player, but not to the extent of having to face violent repercussions. It was an act of political mastery, one that Hafez crafted in the course of three decades and which Bashar cleverly applied for nearly eleven years. In essence, however, Syria remained hostage to familial considerations, one-party rule and the sectarian classifications initiated by colonial France in 1922.

    True, Syria was and will remain a target for Western pressures. But what needs to be realized is that these pressures are motivated by specific policies concerning Israel, and not with regards to a family-centered dictatorship that openly murders innocent civilians in cold blood. In fact, there are many similarities in the pattern of behavior applied by the Syrian Army and the Israeli Army. Reports of causalities in Syria’s uprising cite over 1,600 dead, 2,000 wounded (Al Jazeera, July 27) and nearly 3,000 disappearances (CNN, July 28). Unfortunately, this violence is not new, and is hardy compelled by fear of international conspiracy to undermine the Baath regime. The 1982 Hama uprising was crushed with equal if not greater violence, where the dead were estimated between 10,000 and 40,000.

    The Syrian regime is deliberately mixing up regional and national narratives, and it is still exploiting the decades-old political discourse to explain its inhumane treatment of Syrians. Civilians continue to endure the wrath of a single family, backed by a single political party. But there is only one way to read the future of Syria. The Syrian people deserve a new dawn of freedom, equality, social justice, free from empty slogans, self-serving elites and corrupt criminals. Syria and its courageous people deserve better. Much better.

    — Ramzy Baroud ( is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London), available on


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